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Cincy Shakes It Up

Classic theater company has a cool approach to its work — onstage and off

By Rick Pender · September 14th, 2011 · Cool Issue
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There’s a lot to be celebrated about Cincinnati’s varied theater scene, but one of the coolest aspects might not be immediately obvious: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s stock in trade is shows that were written four centuries ago. So how is that cool? Well, let me count the ways. Let’s consider actors, plays and outreach.

First, those actors. Back in the Elizabethan era (Shakespeare wrote, produced and acted mostly between 1585 and 1613; he died at the age of 52 in 1616), theater was presented by companies of actors and writers. His company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (they became the King’s Men in 1603 when King James became their patron), performed at the Globe Theatre using a group of actors who played many roles. Shakespeare was the leading writer for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (they were the exclusive purveyors of his many scripts — 38 of which are still around), and he wrote his plays with a very specific set of actors in mind.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) doesn’t have a resident playwright, but it does have a company of actors, some of whom have been performing at the theater at 719 Race St. in downtown Cincinnati for more than a decade. (CSC has just begun its 18th season.) If you attend their productions with some frequency, you’ll see certain actors in different roles from show to show, sometimes in a lead, sometimes in a supporting role. It’s a fascinating theater experience and one that will impress you with the diversity and depth of talent that CSC employs.

For example, CSC’s artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips joined the company in 1998, following a season as an intern at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati.

He was an actor for several seasons, then became the company’s artistic leader in 2003. He still appears onstage occasionally (he was in June’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) as the beleaguered guy trying to hold things together), but more frequently he is staging productions using colleagues he has worked with for many seasons, plus occasional guest performers used to fill specific roles. This long-term familiarity means a level of insight and experience that adds considerable depth to CSC’s productions, whether they are Shakespearean classics or more contemporary works.

That brings me to the second aspect of CSC’s coolness. While the company’s name pays tribute to their principal focus, they don’t limit their seasons to Shakespeare’s plays. Last week the company opened its 2011-2012 season with Robert Bolt’s 1962 Tony Award winner, A Man for All Seasons (it’s onstage through Oct. 2), a play about the struggle between King Henry VIII and his principled chancellor Sir Thomas More when the impetuous king insisted on divorcing and remarrying, despite the strict prohibition of the Roman Catholic Church. If you see that show, you will want to return in January for a rarely staged work from 1613, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: All Is True, featuring actors returning as characters they are currently playing in Bolt’s modern play.

You’ll also find works like the bloody, ghostly tragedy of Macbeth (Oct. 14-Nov. 20), onstage just before and after Halloween, the witty Love’s Labour’s Lost as a holiday treat (Dec. 2-31) and the complex tale of persecution and revenge, The Merchant of Venice (May 11-June 3, 2012). Also in 2012 you’ll find classics from later eras, including stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Feb. 17-March 18) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (March 30-April 29). It’s not all Shakespeare all the time.

The final aspect of CSC’s trifecta of cool is outreach. Every year the troupe’s “Young Company,” recent graduates of outstanding theater programs who fill out mainstage productions, also assemble two touring productions that visit schools and other community sites with pared-down versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Through late September, you’ll find them offering free performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar in parks around the region. It’s possible to book various programs for schools and other groups, dubbed “Two Hours’ Traffic,” by contacting CSC’s education director.

CSC is ambitious and thoughtful about creating another generation of classical theater lovers. Beyond shows that tour to schools, they offer a program they call “Groundlings” — named after people who paid a penny to crowd the pit at the Globe to stand and watch performances by Shakespeare’s company. This program is for high school kids who want to learn about theater from professional actors while studying Shakespeare’s texts. It’s a 20-week program on Saturday mornings, which includes acting method training, text analysis and instruction on voice and movement. There’s also “Groundlings Jr.” for kids in grades 7-9 (it’s less intense, over a 10-week period). 

No matter how you look at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company — as actors, plays or outreach programs — what they’re doing proves that the classics are not stodgy. They’re cool.

John Kasich’s initial 2011 allocation of $10 million to the Ohio Arts Council was approximately $3 million less than the previous biennium. Luckily, the Ohio House advanced a budget that boosted the OAC grant to about $13 million, and the Senate later raised it to $16 million.


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